Online etymology: is "DERP" ableist?

Original photo by Flickr user Greeblie
Oh, DERP. You ridiculous meme. You have replaced words like DUH, DOY, D'OH, and DER in the vernacular of millions, a quick four-letter word to say "That was hilariously stupid of me!" Unfortunately for DERP, there are some people who've used it derisively, using it to mock those with developmental delays or disabilities. Based on these contexts, some people now see the word as offensive.

When it comes to reader sensitivities about problematic words, I almost always err on the side of extreme caution. The phrase "illegal immigrant" was immediately changed to "undocumented immigrant" when a reader emailed with concerns. When someone thought our use of the word "Tribe" was "problematic and franky racist", I went straight to the source to investigate. Issues of cultural appropriation are always addressed head-on. But DERP? I'm not sure I agree that Derp is ableist.

Here's why:

Looking at the meme's history, it's just not a word with an etymology like "retarded" or "gay," where a descriptor has been lifted from a group of people and used to describe something negatively. (I'd feel quite differently about the word if its source was an evolution of, say, Flerderpington's Syndrome.) Derp is a word that was invented by a couple comedians to describe themselves doing something stupid. I'm not saying some awful people haven't used the word in mean ways (and I understand that some folks feel this is enough of a reason to avoid the word) but I'm just not seeing it as a word with the same troubling lineage as many other derisive phrases.

I'm not totally comfortable defending a phrase that some people find problematic, and I fully accept that I'm potentially wrong about this.

UPDATE 2 YEARS AFTER THIS POST WAS WRITTEN
Despite the fact that it felt like a made up phrase that (unlike many slurs and derisive words) doesn't target any specific group, any more than "D'OH!" in the '90s or "DUH" in the '80s… Ultimately for me, knowing people are concerned with it has been enough to make me stop using it on the websites — even if I'm not 100% sure I agree with the concern. Also, there are a lot more ridiculous words without any controversy that we can use. This post was helpful to me in coming to this conclusion:

There are other words, more descriptive words, and most people are capable of coming up with those words. For those without the mental wherewithal to tap into a good vocabulary, there's always a dictionary or thesaurus (look it up on your phone!).
  1. THANK YOU. I completely agree. I'm liberal as they come but lately it seems like a lot of the places I like to visit in Internetland are so overly sensitive about pretty much everything.

    16 agree
    • I'm all for sensitivity and readers letting us know when they find content problematic, and I'm also all for working through why certain words are problematic to see if it feels like I agree.

      I totally understand that some people use "derp" hatefully toward others. I wish that weren't the case, but I think as with any language, context is crucial. If I'm describing myself, I feel ok saying "DERP! That was stupid of me." I would not be comfortable, however, saying something like "Look at this bride tripping over her dress's train: DERP!" That's just not how I roll.

      Furthermore, as the word's usage evolves, my opinions may shift. If, a year from now, DERP is *only* used in hateful ways, then you can bet I won't be saying it any more. But for now, it's a word I see mostly in the context of moments of self-described stupidity, which just doesn't feel hateful to me.

      Mostly, I totally respect that other folks may draw their own boundaries around this particular word differently. We're all just trying to figure it out.

      9 agree
      • hehe not arguing here, but …

        isn't that the same as saying it's ok to use words like gay or the n word as a negative quality as long as you're only using it when you do something dumb? i think it's kinda the same issue, albeit less obvious. if you're using a quality of someone else as an insult, maybe it doesn't matter that you're only insulting yourself, ya know? b/c by linking them to it, you are also insulting them.

        that's my thought anyway.

        4 agree
        • I think that's why the etymology of the word is so important, because unlike some of the examples you mention, DERP doesn't have a history of hateful use.

          If DERP becomes officially offensive, because it's been (unfortunately) used hatefully, then what's to stop any word from being mis-used and taken "out of the lexicon"? That's a hyperbolic example, but it's sort of what's happening.

          (SO interested to talk about this in a smart, small forum like OBE, BTW.)

          14 agree
          • no, what i'm saying is i believe it DOES have origins in making fun of mentally challenged children. just like duh, doy, & der. & for the same reason, when people use the derp in a meme, the eyes are usually facing outwards, like many of those children. it's been that way since the 80s way before it was ever a meme. some people even call them "derp kids".

            i mean it's one thing if the word was meaningless at it's beginning & then began to change into something cruel, but if it originated as someone mimicking the sounds of a mentally challenged person, how is that any diff than using the word "retarded"? it's just the new word for "retarded", but now they are just using a sound. somehow it's acceptable b/c people think it's just a silly sound w/ no meaning http://www.definition-of.net/derp+face.

            15 agree
  2. Part of the problem with internet lingo (and language in general, I suppose,) is that we always assign a word a connotation based on the context in which we first encountered said word. It's a permanent mental association that's pretty hard to move beyond, even if you "know" that the origin of a word is less squicky. For me, derp is associated with something pretty specific, and it's not nice.
    Do I use it? Sure. But I feel a tiny twinge of weirdness when I do.

    6 agree
    • This is pretty much exactly what I was going to say.

      Except in my case I first encountered people using 'derp' to mean "In this post I was jokingly imitating a troll for comedic value, do not take anything I said seriously".

      I know that's not how most people use it, but my first reaction is still to dismiss the entire post.

  3. I don't have any negative memories associated with it and I don't recognize any group having a prior claim to it ( innocent or otherwise ).

    If you disallow "derp" you might as well throw out all slang.

    Imma keep using it.

    19 agree
  4. ok for me it's one of those things that i find kinda offensive. as in i won't say it & i'm a tad weirded out / don't want to spend a ton of time with someone who does say it. here's why…

    i'm not SURE of the origins, but there were all kinds of kids doing this in my grade school (late 80s-early 90s) minus the p at the end. & i went to a school that had a massive special needs wing. when kids would say der they would say it in a voice that was mocking the special ed kids & they would do that hand thing where you jerk your arm & it hits your clavicle. to me, it was clearly mocking the same sounds & actions as the other kids. maybe the comedians that came up w/ it were from a similar background & just doing their own version. it gets laughs & it's something that certainly has a familiar ring to it for people of our generation.

    i'm not gonna vilify people who say it b/c they probably aren't meaning to hurt anyone, but it does rub me the wrong way entirely.

    13 agree
      • I've only heard the word first used by Matt & Trey to indicate a joke that is so over-the-top slapstick or obvious that it's completely predictable or unintelligent. Secondarily, I've heard it when someone's making fun of themselves as in "that was so unintelligent of me" like a noise to substitute the expression "brain fart." I've never heard it used to mock the mentally handicapped. I think Carlos Mencia had a noise/word that was clearly mocking the handicapped, but then again, he's terrible.

        7 agree
        • Yep, that's the origin I'm familiar with. I'm not going to say that some awful people haven't used the word hatefully, or that words can't evolve to become hateful (because they absolutely can!). But with this particular word, with its particular origins, and the contexts that we're using it in, it feels like it's just not the case.

          (…Yet? Again, it may shift, and my opinion very well may change.)

          1 agrees
          • i know that's what the site says the origin is, but i heard it before that. the movie was out in 98, i believe. so, i would've been in 10th grade, but i did hear it in 4th & 5th grade. pretty much everyone i knew did it. same sound, same gesture, & same meaning. adding it to any phrase meant, THAT WAS SERIOUSLY DUMB. & i know from looking around online that there are some other people who saw this before the movie as well. so, maybe they made it popular, maybe they learned it as a kid like i did, maybe it started out regionally. there is allot of arguing online about it, but i remember it very clearly. even derp face! it wasn't online so there's no real record of it, but pretty much everyone in my grade school did it. the only thing missing, it seems, is the hand gesture.

            8 agree
  5. Some people will use words to hurt others. Poopyhead can be funny coming from one person, and cutting and hurtful from another, it all depends on the intent behind it.

    Banning words that have a fairly innocuous meaning because some people use them inappropriately is ineffective and only serves to make things more difficult for those seeking to do the right thing by others.

    21 agree
  6. @mariegael (only because for some reason I don't see a "reply to this comment" in our orig. condo up there …)

    After reading your other, general comment, I think I see where you're coming from. I guess my perspective is that of a person who knows the words der, deep, duh, etc., only as general mocking with no specific connotation (e.g.: from Ariel's Know Your Meme link).

    I understand how if someone is just imitating sounds associated with special needs, that is definitely in the same ballpark as calling someone 'retarded.' I am defensive about making assumptions regarding language though … I don't like to think that an anecdotal negative experience, or worse, an assumption, can define language.

    It's the slippery slope I'm worried about, because I'd wager that any funny noise could be making fun at someone.

    *Note: Only continuing the convo b/c your responses genuinely interest me … Not trying to be a pest. :-)

    3 agree
    • yeah, i'm not making assumptions. if you read my above comment, i heard it several years before the origin movie came out.

      1 agrees
      • I believe they are implying that they personally don't want to make knee jerk assumptions on whether a person is using a word hatefully or not. Not that you were making assumptions. Though making assumptions on a person's use of a word without knowing context, background, intent, etc, can make you quite honestly look like an ass.

        I can say that when I was in grade school we used to go "DURRR" and do the whole clavicle hitting thing. Although I never personally aligned that with the actions of the special needs children in my school. I can see now how it could be considered a gesture referencing to a mentally handicapped person. But heck, some of the higher functioning special needs children would do it as well… At me and others, signifying that they thought we were 'stupid/idiotic'. So that may be why it never really paralleled until now.

        But I also think it should be mentioned that, you shouldn't correlate durr, duh, derrrr, and the like with derp automatically. I grew up with duh (as a general, rude noise to make instead of saying 'yeah, I'm not stupid, I know that') and durr (to signify that one thinks another is stupid/an idiot). I didn't hear derp until a few years back, and it was in a "I'm an idiot" connotation. And have since only used it to describe myself when I am completely stupid.

        I'm certainly not saying your concern is invalid. Or any of that. And hey, we might have differing opinions or even experiences with the words and words like them. But, at least thank you for helping me understand some stuff from my past that I didn't realize.

  7. interestingly enough, i'm not the commenter who originally inspired this post. i didn't notice till yesterday that the word had ever even been on offbeat. lol

  8. Is it just ones that start with a "D" that cause this emotion?
    If I say "Bif, that was silly of me"
    Does it sound differently?

    Honestly I just blurt random syllables to avoid swearing, any one of them could be misinterpreted as mocking toward another person, culture, or language.
    Where is that fine line?

    14 agree
  9. Somehow, this meme flew under the radar for me. I've never really noticed it or heard anyone use it in person.

    I think the time and place to be offended about this particular issue is when someone uses it in a way that is clearly mocking someone with a disability. When I did a search on "derp," there was definitely some of that. But it mostly looked like it was used when your average (or famous person) was caught making a ridiculous face. Could someone make the connection that it's ableist? Of course, but it doesn't seem that way most of the time.

    Really, though? This is the Offbeat Empire. When someone's heart is clearly in the right place, there's no need to jump all over them. Yes, we all make mistakes. Everybody can be ignorant or thoughtless or rude sometimes. But if it isn't malicious, it's not worth getting in a huff. The gentlest of suggestions will do. :-) And that's why I love coming here, because everybody can discuss issues in a civilized way!

    3 agree
  10. I had no idea that "derp" was so controversial. My husband has a lot of self-proclaimed "Derp!" moments (like that time he dropped his phone, tried to catch it with his foot and kicked it across the room) so it's a word we hear and even use a lot. I had no idea that some folks consider it a mimicry/mockery of a population.

    4 agree
    • I just shared the link to this post with said husband and he made a good observation about how some folks are deeply offended by derp, while others are not:
      "I suppose it depends on if you were introduced to it through South Park/Baseketball (who use it completely un-offensively) or via the internet memes (which are mostly jokes about people with disabilities)."

      It makes sense to me. I mean, if you've seen Baseketball, the whole movie is pretty much a series of d*ck and fart jokes strung together, that is to say, physical/slapstick humor – which is what I think of when I hear something called "derp".

      6 agree
  11. I was one of the people who emailed Ariel with abelist concerns (thanks for the post, Ariel!) and I still stand by my concerns, although it's interesting to see where people were first introduced to the term.

    In my experience, people use the word Derp to mock 1) when a person with an intellectual, physical, or cognitive disability mispronounces something or 2) the involuntary utterances of a person with an intellectual, physical, or cognitive disability. Kids did it in high school while contorting their bodies in ways that mocked certain physical disabilities. It was terrible. It is very hard for me to see the difference between that mocking and this.

    For me it goes: I made a mistake, therefore I am similar to someone with a disability who cannot help making mistakes.

    That's not cool.

    There are some great posts on the interwebs about the abelism of Derpy Pony, a character on My Little Pony Friendship is Magic who seems to have an intellectual or cognitive disability. If the presence of Derpy Pony isn't enough to conflate Derp with the mocking of persons with disabilities (ie Abelism) I don't know what is.

    I agree that excess of self-censorship stifles creativity, but if we can't be creative without being introspective, then we are suppressing the ability of ALL members of our society (writ small (the Tribe) and writ large).

    9 agree
    • Thing is though, the idea that the pony was mentally disabled didn't come about until well *after* 'Derpy' was a popular name for her. No one though the was disabled until people started complaining that it was 'ableist'.

      4 agree
    • While I had seen Derpy before, I didn't see her as mentally handicapped ever. They never once said she had a handicap. They just show that she has a lot of clutzy moments. If her eyes weren't facing different directions, would people still she was mentally handicapped? Or just that typical character that is extremely unlucky and clumsy?

      1 agrees
  12. People who suffer from Flerderpington's Syndrome are seriously underrepresented on this site, and I really wish the Offbeat Editors would take them into consideration when constructing posts.

    But seriously, it never occured to me to wonder if "derp" was ableist. (And I'm one of those people who will stop a conversation cold if someone uses the "R word.") The only place I've encountered the word "derp" is in internet memes, where I have seen it used not to signify developmental disabilities, but everyday stupid mistakes. I guess the roots go deeper than I thought?

    6 agree
  13. For what it's worth this is the first time I've ever heard that people associate this word with discrimination or are offended by it. It seems from the comments that I'm not the only one.

    I'm not asking anyone to change their opinion on the meaning or origin of the word, but I think it's worth bearing in mind if you are offended that the person saying it might have absolutely no intention of being offensive, or any idea that anyone could possibly be offended.

    8 agree
  14. I'm a bit late on the commenting here, but I heard of derp through "Baseketball" and "South Park." I'd seen it on internet memes and never really thought much about it until I did a google images search for "derp." My heart shattered when I realized how many people were using it to talk about/describe persons with cognitive or even physical disabilities. I will admit, I still use it from time to time, but more often than not it's a knee-jerk reaction when as soon as it comes out of my mouth I feel terrible having said it, like "Where did that come from?"

    2 agree
  15. I'm even LATER to the comments but…

    At what point did Trey Parker and Matt Stone become good arbiters for this?

    These are two men who have built a career out of ableist, racist, sexist (yet often also incisive and surprisingly effective, meh) comedy.

    So maybe baseketball was the first time you heard it…but I bet they didn't invent it. They PROBABLY heard it, or used it, previously, in reference to people with d.d's.

    That's not to say there's anything wrong with someone enjoying their work. But to use THAT as a buffer against an accusation of discriminatory or bigoted language is beyond absurd.

    7 agree
    • Bible talks about "(Those) that make a man an offender for a word" in Isaiah 29:21, Authorized "virgin", KJB oldie!! Tee-hee!!!! Love, Miss Mytyl

  16. Lol, what? How is this even close to intelligent discourse? Fag has its etymology in being a bundle of objects and was then used as an insult toward homosexuals. In the same way derp might have been used by Matt and trey to mean whatever. If it now has a denotation of making fun of mentally retarded people how is it any different? The only difference is one doesn't happen to be in Webster's. And by the way it does have that denotation. I should know, I call people derps all the time.

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